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Features: Ask Brian Johnson

Brian's responses

The following answers were posted 8 November 2001. Your questions can be sent here. Please take advantage of this unique opportunity to communicate with Mr. Johnson!

It's an honor to get to talk to you. Ever since I first saw Space: 1999, I've always wanted to build my one models, especially models of the alien craft. To your knowledge, are there any sort of drawings or schematics that were used to build them still around, or were they just quickly thrown together because of time constraints? Are there at least any good pictures of them around?

If there are ANY drawings of any of the craft then Martin Bower [who is definitely a squirrel in terms of hoarding memorabilia] is your best bet. He built quite a number of Space: 1999's episodic vehicles - one-offs, if you like. I was never a fan of keeping anything because I was always deep into the next project and had no interest in looking backwards when trying to move forwards!

Regarding your work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, another of my favorites, I've heard that after production, Kubrick ordered all materials destroyed. By any chance, did any pics or drawings for Clavius base survive? I'd like to model it too. Thanks for any info. Take care.

I think the truer version is that Stanley put everything into storage at Elstree next door to Elstree studios [Stanley moved there after Boreham Wood Studios was closed] in a convenient Storage Company the name of which escapes me. I would presume MGM would have paid for storage of the models and Stanley would have put all the paperwork in as well. After a while, the payments stopped, MGM had gone to the wall, Stanley wasn't interested in paying for a project that he no longer had any interest in, Clockwork Orange was occupying his every thought and so in their infinite wisdom the Storage Company trashed everything, and I mean everything!!! Sad, but true.

From Space: 1999's "Space Warp" episode: Maya's Eagle goes out of control. One of the most spectacular sequences ever filmed for television was the Hangar Crash Sequence during the Space: 1999 Year Two episode, "Space Warp." I would love to read a full and detailed description of how this sequence was filmed! Tell us about how it was choreographed, how long it took to set up and film, and specific problems that may have cropped up. For example, I suspect that when the Eagle flipped over it may have been done by someone literally tossing the model into the scene... Is this essentially what happened or was it much more carefully controlled than that?

When the mists of time have cleared from my brain [if ever!] I will enlarge on the answer I now give. The forthcoming DVD will help me recall more info I am sure [ the wires show up with embarrassing regularity! ] We obviously could not destroy our only models so I shot the establishing shots using every model scale we had.

For the actual crash sequence I used two high speed cameras, maybe even three. I think 2 HS Mitchells and an Arri. The rolling eagle had two wires one on the nose and one on the rear, I think. A third wire was wound around the centre section and on pulling that one the eagle rolled over enough to complete the shot. The other Eagles in the explosion sequences were actually photo cut-outs enlarged at different scales so that we stacked them in such a way as to fill the set without having to build an enormous hangar. We did not damage any of our regular Eagles ["No animals were hurt in the making of this episode"] and all that sort of bullsh!t!

I have read over the years that the space "zero-gee" explosions in the first Star Wars were done with the camera facing directly upwards at the pyrotechnic, and they constantly claim to be the first to use this technique. However didn't you do exactly this years before in Space: 1999?

Absolutely correct! I used coarse titanium powder and magnesium shards and a little loosely wrapped gunpowder. We only had a stage of about 25' clearance so the actual weight of charge was about 5 ounces total. The charge was suspended from a pole stuck through a large black velvet sheet that filled the area that our wide angled lens [9 mm] covered. I used a 16 mm Photosonics camera set at 1000 frames per second. The shot was dependent on the pyro providing any light. The explosion was triggered by an electronic signal when the camera got up to speed.

In the event the Photosonics Camera operator dialled in 10,000 fps by mistake! And so we had to reshoot at what we thought was the right speed [1000] However, at dailies, I discovered that the 10,000 frame shot was so spectacular that you could see individual grains of gunpowder burning and it had such scale and weight that we used the "mistake" in the show. I do not think that I would have been the originator of this idea I am sure that it will have been done years before by someone in the early days of cinematography. The days of real original thought.

Also: didn't you use kit-bashing techniques to dress models with Derek Meddings before Douglas Trumbull discovered this approach on 2001?

Derek and I certainly did use plastic kittery in large quantities and I am sure Douglas used kit parts before 2001. We both knew what to do when we modified the MoonBus. I went to the Worlds Toy Fair at Nuremberg and met German kit makers Faller and Volmer? and persuaded them to let me pick out the specific injection moulding machines that were doing Girder Bridge parts, etc. and Fuel Tanks, etc. and just let the boxes fill up with the bits we needed. They were so helpful. It saved us thousands on buying one particular kit with hundreds of bits to extract one precious item.

Nowadays, we get the parts and then mould our own versions, using rigid fine grade polystyrene foam so the finished result is as we want, but light in weight as well, quite a consideration if large areas have to be covered. If I had clad Nostromo using the later technique, it would have weighed far less.

You mentioned in one of your other answers that you had, "some where" a sketch of how the Eagles would have looked for a third season, if one had happened. I would be very interested in seeing how the Eagles would have been changed.

Me too - I have moved five times and gone through two divorces and as anyone knows every time you move you find something previously lost, but lose a whole lot more. I am pretty sure that soon I will be able to unearth at least something from the dim and murky past. By the way I have been asked to provide information for a book on my Cinematic/TV career, so obviously most material will be used as 'exclusive' in that, should it come to pass, if anyone is interested that is.

There's a spaceship in Space: 1999's Year One "Alpha Child" episode which looks almost identical to the Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Any comments or backstory about this spaceship, the similarities, etc.? (It's a beautiful craft, by the way.)

You had better thank Martin Bower because it was his original model that I had him alter to use in "Alpha Child." I think he built the original some five years before. The model had similarities to Discovery, but why not? If you put the two side by side they would be as alike as a 747 and a DC-10.

I also paid homage to Harry Lange's concept of modular construction for Moonbase Alpha, but that was based on a NASA concept anyway. When I was at ILM I noticed that part of my Eagle design had made its way onto cladding for Star Destroyer on Empire. The Nostromo had bits of Eagle, Thunderbird 2, Millenium Falcon and so on.

(Answers to your questions for Mr. Johnson will continue to be posted. You can submit them here.)

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Moonbase Alpha
Commander John Koenig
Dr. Helena Russell
Professor Victor Bergman
Alan Carter
Controller Paul Morrow